Joshua Tree National Park: California Riding and Hiking Trail
Clocking in at 36.5 miles, this trail is a fine choice for hikers to see high desert landscapes, mind-blowing rock formations, and absolutely no one.
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The California Riding and Hiking Trail is the premier backpacking route in Joshua Tree National Park, stringing together lonely cacti and pinyon landscapes with iconic Joshua trees, incredible desert overlooks, and rock formations that defy Newton’s Law. Backpackers can thru-hike this trail in three days or choose from several accessible trailheads for shorter dayhike or overnight options.
Hike The California Riding and Hiking Trail
The California Riding and Hiking Trail is best thru-hiked from west to east, so start at the Black Rock Canyon trailhead located five miles south of the town of Yucca Valley at the Black Rock Canyon campground. This 7.5-mile section begins by weaving through low scrubland and past several side trails to a wide sandy wash. Next is a 1,000-foot uphill march and the steepest elevation gain of the whole hike. From the highpoint at 5,130 feet, it’s 2 mostly downhill miles to the Upper Covington Flats trailhead.
The 10.8-mile section from Upper Covington Flats to Keys View is the longest and most remote section of the CRHT. The trail is often overgrown so wear long pants or the woody and thorny underbrush will cheese grade your legs into a scratchy mess. Trace a desert plateau for .9 mile before descending into a sunburnt valley. The trail crosses several dry washes in Covington Flats and climbs again to a panoramic ridge just below 5,000 feet with views over Juniper Flats. Drop, cross washes, and climb again. Look north to Quail Mountain, the highest mountain in the park at 5,813 feet. Now, descend into Juniper Flats where you’ll see groves of bushy armed Joshua Trees. Many unique rock formations dot the topography as the trail turns downhill into Lost Horse Valley to Keys View trailhead.
Since it’s near the halfway point, Keys View trailhead is a good place to stash extra water. From the road, head east .8 mile to Ryan Campground. Next, begin a short climb. Near the top, you’ll pass junk left by gold miners, including old building foundations, wagon parts, and a mine shaft just south of Ryan Mountain. The trail quickly climbs again and continues to Geology Tour trailhead to end this 6.5-mile leg.
It’s only 4.4 miles from Geology Tour Road to the next major trailhead on Pinto Basin Road. This is a great option for dayhikers and has little elevation gain. Head east across dry washes and highspots with views into a geologial wonder called Jumbled Rocks (think Legoland for rocks). The trail flows in and out of various washes so navigate with caution. The last two miles offer spectacular views of Pinto Basin, a parched zone of sunken rocks that connects the Sonoran and Mojave Deserts.
From Pinto Basin Road the trail swings north and in 1.3 miles passes a sidetrail on left to Belle Campground. Stay on the CRHT. You’ll cross a dirt road 1.4 miles later. From here to the trail’s end the path becomes faint in spots, so when in doubt, bear due north. You’ll climb a small hill with views over the town of Twentynine Palms. To finish this 7.3-mile stretch, continue north-northwest to the North Entrance trailhead.
WHEN TO GO: Temperatures are ideal from fall through spring, and wildflowers bloom from February to April, depending on elevation. Drop water caches before you start and carry at least six liters of water per person per day; more if daytime temperatures rise above 85 degrees.
PERMITS: There is no fee for backcountry camping in Joshua Tree. Backpackers are required to park and register at designated backcountry registration boards. Learn more at nps.gov/jotr/planyourvisit/bcboards.htm.
MORE INFO: Joshua Tree National Park, (760) 367-5500; nps.gov/jotr
–Mapped by Ben Fullerton, fullertonimages.com
- Distance: 58.7
Location: 34.075083, -116.387833
Blackrock trailhead: Head east-southeast.
Location: 34.074383, -116.3868
Continue straight as another trail joins in from the left.
Location: 34.073233, -116.38655
Go left here, following the signs for the California Riding and Hiking Trail.
Location: 34.068583, -116.369833
Stay left as the Short Loop Trail goes right, which ultimately joins back in with the CRH Trail up ahead.
Location: 34.066967, -116.365017
Short Loop Trail rejoins trail. Stay to the left.
Location: 34.06625, -116.364133
Continue up a wide, sandy wash. In a few hundred feet, continue straight, passing the Cliff Trail on your right.
Location: 34.064083, -116.358483
Keep left as the other end of the Cliff Trail is on the right.
Location: 34.06095, -116.350533
Lots of elevation gain pays off with sweet views of the San Bernardino Mountains.
Location: 34.051467, -116.346017
Stay to the right, exiting the main wash as it goes off to the right, and enter a smaller wash.
Location: 34.028533, -116.336233
Continue straight; Eureka Trail goes off to the right.
Location: 34.027217, -116.335
The trail parallels Upper Covington Road.
Location: 34.02685, -116.333917
Stay straight as an unnamed trail goes left.
Location: 34.024885, -116.332469
Highpoint. The climbing is over, for now, and there’s a flat grade and well-packed trail ahead.
Location: 34.024352, -116.331525
Go straight across a dirt road, and continue down the trail on the other side. This upper plateau can be quite windy.
Location: 34.016526, -116.318135
Stay straight and a unnamed trail crosses your trail.
Location: 34.010088, -116.306119
Keep your eyes open for the trail to take a hard right, even though the current wash you’re in continues straight, and then finish up the last few hundred feet to the next trailhead.
Location: 34.009717, -116.30585
The trail passes Upper Covington Flats trailhead.
Location: 34.008067, -116.291267
Start descending into a valley; take in nice views too.
Location: 34.00835, -116.288467
Beware as the wash you’re in goes left, but the CRH trail goes to the right.
Location: 34.007433, -116.285517
Cross a wide, dry wash, and pick up trail on the other side.
Location: 34.00745, -116.282417
Cross another wash.
Location: 34.007333, -116.281683
At the trail junction for Lower Covington Flats, continue straight.
Location: 34.00045, -116.2674
Cross another wash.
Location: 33.99875, -116.267133
As you crest the ridge, take in the beautiful views of Juniper Flats, then begin your descent into the valley.
Location: 33.991417, -116.26485
Caution: The trail takes a sneaky, sharp switchback to the left.
Location: 33.991167, -116.264217
Go straight across another wash.
Location: 33.981383, -116.2565
Cross another wash.
Location: 33.97925, -116.255317
Pause for a nice break and enjoy the views of the valley floor that you’ve just crossed.
Location: 33.98055, -116.248
Continue straight past a rock cairn, as another major wash comes in from the right side.
Location: 33.981617, -116.24255
Finish the steep climbing and take a break to enjoy the giant valley behind you.
Location: 33.982383, -116.240533
Go left, up a small hill not down the wash.
Location: 33.98305, -116.2396
See first views of Joshua Tree’s main valley.
Location: 33.98495, -116.232233
Continue straight across another wash.
Location: 33.9814, -116.227267
Cross another wash.
Location: 33.9784, -116.219
Continue straight as the Stubbe Trail goes off to the right.
Location: 33.979483, -116.211917
When crossing this high plateau, you get great views of the many unique rock formations of Joshua Tree.
Location: 33.978433, -116.205917
Get ready for the long, slow descent towards Keys View Road.
Location: 33.97025, -116.190233
Goes straight through an intersection with Stubbe and Johnnie Connector Trails.
Location: 33.9727, -116.173433
Cross another wash.
Location: 33.97755, -116.166083
Where the trail splits, go straight if you wish to hike the next section, or pitch a tent at Ryan Campground, or go to the right and hike 500 feet to finish this section at the Keys View trailhead.
Location: 33.977767, -116.164933
Here the trail crosses Keys View Road and heads toward Ryan Campground. Since it’s easily accessible by road and approximately halfway, this stretch of trail is a great place to stash water ahead of time if you plan on hiking the whole trail.
Location: 33.9769, -116.165117
Hike past Keys View trailhead.
Location: 33.981617, -116.15425
You will see the Ryan Campground on your left, and when the trail makes a sharp right, the smaller trail branches of left to take you to the campsite.
Location: 33.977867, -116.14985
Go left here, instead of letting the larger wash sucker you off to the right.
Location: 33.976633, -116.148467
Go straight across a wash; a few hundred feet later, the trail drops into another wash, and actually follows it to the right for about 50 feet, then goes left, up the other bank.
Location: 33.973717, -116.146233
Straight across another wash. For the next mile, keep your eye on the sides of the trail for ruins of old mining camps.
Location: 33.9627, -116.134017
Cross a wash.
Location: 33.96615, -116.119417
Near another highpoint, there are good views in all directions as well as some odd-shaped rock formations.
Location: 33.96855, -116.116017
Cross a large wash.
Location: 33.974217, -116.1077
Enjoy the views and the flat terrain as you finish out this section to the Geology Tour Road trailhead.
Location: 33.985283, -116.082033
Pass the Geology Tour Road trailhead.
Location: 33.979367, -116.068217
Take in views of the valley below as you descend.
Location: 33.969717, -116.047033
Watch out here, the wash you’re in continues ahead, but the trail swings left.
Location: 33.973517, -116.039883
Cross a wash; in 200 feet, the trail joins a wash going to the right.
Location: 33.983417, -116.027317
Stay sharp here; the trail turns faint as it crosses more washes.
Location: 33.987388, -116.023178
A trail goes to the left, right before the road that goes to the parking lot for the Pinto Basin trailhead. If you wish to finish the section, go left, or continue straight to hike on.
Location: 33.989467, -116.022933
Pass Pinto Basin trailhead.
Location: 33.988159, -116.021976
After crossing Pinto Basin Road, get into a deeply trodden, narrow wash which will be the trail for a while.
Location: 33.99915, -116.01585
Continue straight as a dominant wash crosses the trail, which faintly exits the other side.
Location: 34.001683, -116.0163
A trail goes left that will take you to the Belle Campground.
Location: 34.006317, -116.016333
Cross another wash, then in a few hundred feet, be careful when a deep wash goes right and the trail ducks to the left behind a large bush.
Location: 34.020683, -116.015967
Cross road, then go right in about 200 feet when road continues straight ahead.
Location: 34.022033, -116.015983
The trail opens up into a very large dry riverbed, and virtually disappears, except for lines of small rocks that outline the trail edges.
Location: 34.022267, -116.014717
The trail enters into a low basin, where the trail dubiously winds through loose sand.
Location: 34.02415, -116.0124
The trail heads up a small hill, which represents almost all of the elevation gain for this section, then drops down into another basin. From here, you can see all the way to the town of Twentynine Palms and across to the mountain far on the other side.
Location: 34.02575, -116.012617
This is one of the rare occasions that you don’t go directly across a wash. The trail joins in for about a hundred feet, heading to the left, and turn right to exit (not well-marked).
Location: 34.0424, -116.019617
Trail fades; continue due north when in doubt.
Location: 34.05, -116.019833
Trail joins and follows wash; don’t cross it.
Location: 34.05675, -116.020267
The trail leaves the wash.
Location: 34.068467, -116.020083
Views into Twentynine Palms valley.
Location: 34.069583, -116.020133
The trail takes a hard left turn, crosses another wash, and heads to the final trailhead.
Location: 34.07435, -116.031767
The route ends at the North Entrance trailhead.
Black Rock Canyon trailhead
Location: 34.075424, -116.387401
Location: 34.072509, -116.380663
Location: 34.072107, -116.37959
Walking the wash
Location: 34.060979, -116.350408
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Location: 34.028549, -116.336203
Location: 34.018744, -116.321654
Location: 34.010123, -116.30599
Upper Covington Flats trailhead
Location: 34.009661, -116.305432
Location: 34.008499, -116.291099
Location: 34.007289, -116.28243
Location: 34.007076, -116.281443
Location: 34.000482, -116.267195
Long desert views
Location: 33.979275, -116.255136
Location: 33.980817, -116.249042
Cairn marks trail
Location: 33.980414, -116.247926
Location: 33.983664, -116.230545
Long downhill with views
Location: 33.977816, -116.204152
Location: 33.977543, -116.202908
Keys View trailhead
Location: 33.977638, -116.166043
Location: 33.964125, -116.139007
Location: 33.966759, -116.118364
Geology Tour Road trailhead
Location: 33.98523, -116.082358
Location: 33.983984, -116.075706
More great views
Location: 33.973521, -116.059313
Trail swings northeast
Location: 33.969773, -116.046824
Location: 33.983688, -116.026998
Pinto Basin Road
Location: 33.987353, -116.023264
Pinto Basin trailhead
Location: 33.989417, -116.022792
Jet streams cut across the sky
Location: 33.988349, -116.02159
Location: 33.998917, -116.015797
Location: 34.00155, -116.016183
Location: 34.020617, -116.015797
Location: 34.030197, -116.015754
Location: 34.042703, -116.01953
Location: 34.057139, -116.02026
Views to Twentynine Palms
Location: 34.070045, -116.02159
North Entrance trailhead
Location: 34.074346, -116.031289